Mental Health — From Shame to Seeking Help, Part Two: Learning Shame in Childhood

Mental Health — From Shame to Seeking Help, Part Two: Learning Shame in Childhood

HA note: This series is reprinted with permission from Lana Hobbs’ blog, Lana Hobbs the Brave. Lana describes herself as “an aspiring writer and a former religious fundamentalist” who currently identifies as “post-Christian.” She was homeschooled in junior high and highschool. Part Two of this series was originally published on June 7, 2013.

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In this series: Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven.

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Part Two: Learning Shame in Childhood

(trigger warning: depression and suicide shaming and suicidal thoughts)

I don’t believe we are born believing that our negative emotions are wrong, i think this shame is something that we learn.  I believe we can learn to use our emotions as guides to show us warning signals and lead us towards the next healthy steps (of course, with clinical depression, those emotions might be liars, i’m not sure how that works).

But many of us learn that normal emotions like sadness, anger, fear, and distrust are things we need to repress, for the sake of keeping the peace around us, being ‘godly’, and making our parents and others happy.

I struggle with depression. For years, probably for most of my life, I have struggled with depression and physical pain caused by depression and stress.

I never would have recognized it as depression though. I would have called it ‘feeling a little stressed’ or ‘having a bad attitude but working on it’, when secretly I felt like there was no hope and if I loved everyone around me, I would kill myself and rid them of the burden of dealing with me. I remember being around eleven, after doing something that upset my mother – i didn’t even know the word suicide yet – crying on my bed, believing that I was a major screw-up and a terrible daughter no matter how badly i tried to be good. If I weren’t so scared I might go to hell for murder (I was a christian who was afraid of losing her salvation at that point), i would murder myself so my parents wouldn’t be disappointed by me anymore.

I was twenty-three before it occurred to me that these are not the normal thoughts of a healthy preteen child.

I brought it up once – only once that i remember – in childhood.

It wasn’t something i could talk about, because I quickly learned suicide was a taboo subject.
I don’t remember what I said, I didn’t say that I was thinking of it but tried to bring up the idea of killing oneself. My mom declared suicide very evil and nothing to be considered or talked about, and that was that.

I was afraid my selfishness kept me from doing it, but others considered suicide the ultimate expression of selfishness*. I felt most of my life that I was damned if i did and damned if i didn’t.

I also had unexplained pains and aches, and periods of ‘attitude’ where I just couldn’t feel happy and cried for no reason. I was sad that i was such a poor example of Jesus’ light to the world** My parents lamented once that i wasn’t even PMS (i wasn’t sure what they meant). I frequently had trouble making friends at school, my teachers once said i wasn’t adjusting well, and i went to the office to be checked for sickness regularly because of tummy aches – i still get stomach aches and joint pain when i am very stressed or depressed.

In retrospect, I believe a lot of this was partially because of undiagnosed childhood depression. now that I know what depression feels like, I can remember that I did feel this way many of those times, all the way back to age 7.

In 7th grade, I was homeschooled for the first time. My homeschooling continued through graduation, and while there were some benefits, one cost was that I lost any of the ‘psychobabble’ from school counselor classtime that might have taught me how to cope with anger and that sadness was okay and how to deal with it. Also my family ventured deeper into fundamentalist Christian teachings, where we believed we would find out how to live and all turn out faithful because we trusted God and served him. My parents wanted very badly for their children to grow up to be strong soldiers for Christ, and I wanted that for me too. I wanted God to be happy with me, and not sad because of me. I wanted to hear ‘well done, good and faithful servant!’ when I died.

When I was sixteen, I took a great interest in the human brain, staying away from psychotherapy because that was ‘psychobabble’ by people who denied God could heal. I was actually very interested in psychology, and learning how the brain worked. I had an old college textbook I read in my spare time.

I also dreamed of being a christian counselor, to help people. Maybe even to help myself with my very big negative feelings I couldn’t seem to control – and by control I meant get rid of.

My parents encouraged me by buying a me a course on mental health from a respected Christian teacher. I ‘learned’ that suicide was the ultimate expression of ‘self love’ (which means ‘selfishness’ in the language i learned as a fundamentalist christian), and depression was either a failure to trust God, guilt, or an evil spirit that god visited on you for sinning – like Saul after God disowned him as king.

I had heard somewhere that depression was a medical problem, but this was generally dismissed as a lie perpetuated by people wanting to drag others away from God, while medicines that ‘supposedly’ helped with mental illness – depression especially – were even called witchcraft by a pastor at my church – who used bible verses to support this claim. I cannot find an article arguing this right now, but the general claim is that the word translated ‘witchcraft’ is pharmokopeia, which they say refers to psychotropic medications. By this logic, taking any medication that might help mental illness is actually trusting to ‘witchcraft’ and sin, instead of trusting God, forgiving, asking forgiveness, and living right.

I would like to point out that I am not saying the bible is against mental health care, simply that I was taught it was, and the Bible was used to teach me this. I no longer agree with these interpretations or usages of the Bible.

By the time I was done with high school, I didn’t admit I’d ever had depression (I believed I didn’t have repressed guilt and I knew I did pray and trust God, so how could I be depressed?), but I did believe that if I trusted God ‘enough’, he would give me peace and mental health in my life, and that if I worked hard, I would be such a good christian I wouldn’t have to wrestle with the dark sadness and suicidal thoughts again.

Unfortunately, I was never ‘made perfect’, although I had many long periods of happiness in my childhood and young adulthood (and probably periods of hypomania), the emotional difficulties, attitude problems, and unexplained sickness came back the worst they had ever been, when i was in college….

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(disclaimer: my whole childhood was not depression and repressed feelings. there were many good days and fun times. but this post is about my history with depression, and mental illness shaming, and the warped beliefs i held about mental illness)

*the link to a reb bradley PDF is a note taking guide/companion to the tape set The Biblical Path to Mental and Emotional Health. the section on suicide as self love is striking. My parents got the set for me when I was about sixteen because I was  interested in becoming a therapist to help people. I didn’t listen to all of it, the suicide and depression shaming filled me with very uncomfortable thoughts, and led me to put the tapes away until i trusted god enough not to be depressed. That day never came.

** I ‘got saved’ at age 5. I felt a great pressure to ‘be salt and light’ so that people around me would love Jesus and not go to hell. This ‘burden for souls’ and pressure to be Christlike added extra guilt onto me my entire life. For many reasons, both of reason and heart – and hurt – I no longer identify as Christian.

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To be continued.

17 responses to “Mental Health — From Shame to Seeking Help, Part Two: Learning Shame in Childhood

  1. I believe I have some kind of mental illness, and probably an early onset one, since I’ve been suicidal and hallucinatory/paranoid as long as I can remember, since before I really understood what death ~was~. However, I knew that it was, instinctively or maybe through sermons or overhearing things the adults had said, that it was something they would think was Bad, and so I never told and worked to hide it as well as possible. And in much the same way that they would accuse me of queerness being a “choice,” they would say that I could get over this and be happy if I really tried and if I would stop having an overactive imagination I would stop seeing things and that of course I can’t have meds they’re just the medical companies using us to make money. I’ve also seen the “witchcraft” reason, but my mom never believed in that, I think because she worked in the medical field herself.

    • Yeah, the choose to be happy stuff rankles me. Nowadays I find articles along those lines very triggering. I think people sometimes confuse discouragement with clinical depression, but even then you can’t simply ‘choose’ to be happy. You just might be able to make changes. Depression isn’t like that ( unless your changes are meds and counseling ;) )

  2. It’s very frustrating to me that so many fundamental, and even somewhat normal, Christians have no understanding of emotions or the brain. I was sitting in church the other day while our pastor was explaining why he had to take a sabbatical, basically it sounded like he was depressed. But then he said that the emotions were a part of the soul and he needed time to pray and recharge and blah blah blah. Far too many Christian’s I’ve met seem to regard modern science as taboo or taking away from God, and it is absolutely frustrating how some people have a complete lack of any knowledge of how the brain and emotions actually work.

    For you, if you haven’t already discovered it, Seratonin is your friend. I routinely take samE and 5-HTP supplements and have found they do wonders for my mood. But I only have mild to moderate depression comorbid with ADHD, so treatment of the ADHD has helped tremendously as well.

    • Thanks! I am actually on some anti depressants and mood stabilizers. (Bipolar so gotta be careful).

      I feel like if fundamentalist christians were more educated in science (would require being less afraid/suspicious of science…) then their views on mental health would change.

      • I think many fundamentalists are actually afraid of science because it takes away from their perception of the power of their god. Take the arguments against cloning as a perfect example. I’ve many Christian friends who think cloning is downright wrong because to them it represents man playing God. And I think this misperception carries over to other aspects as well. Taking ADs or other medication is circumventing these people’s idea of what god’s plan is for us. If you’re depressed, if because god wanted that because you did something wrong or he’s trying to teach you something, or any other completely ridiculous reason. It is impossible that your depression is a result of a biological process because doing so destroys fundamentalist’s ideas of god and how our lives are supposed to work.

      • I think you are exactly right! I do think there can be Christian views that allow for science to be helpful, but they aren’t the ones i grew up in.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your story….it’s similar in many ways to mine, in that I spent most of my teens lying on my bed in a zombie-like state, and believed myself to be “lazy” and “far from God” because I wasn’t displaying the fruits of the Spirit such as joy, peace, etc. I also thought all the time about how I could never be good enough and no one would miss me if I was gone.

    It’s pretty obvious in hindsight that it was serious depression. But at the time, everything I heard (at Reb Bradley’s church) and read told me that depression wasn’t an option for a Christian. I even went to a doctor in my late teens for “extreme tiredness” and “constant vague pain in my whole body”, and the doctor asked gently if I was depressed, which I emphatically denied and then later cried about because of my poor Christian witness. I wrote more about my experience here: http://pasttensepresentprogressive.blogspot.com/2012/07/bad-evil-psychology-helped-me.html.

    So glad that you’ve been able to find a healthier perspective on emotions and mental health now too!

    • Wow, you are thanking ME for writing about this?! Your post, I read it. I found your blog in the depths of my depression and that was one of the posts I read!! No comments. Too depressed to write them. But now that I’m better, thank YOU for writing about evil psychology :) you helped me get help.

      • OMG!! I’m speechless. Thank you. I know your post is going to help a lot of people…it takes a lot of courage to speak openly and personally on this topic.

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